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The Verdict: Convention a time to look forward, back

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

As always, fans attending the annual Blackhawks Convention at the Hilton Chicago this weekend will be able to meet and greet current and past stars in a variety of formats. Autograph and photograph sessions are available, as well as events with specific themes, such as Saturday morning’s panel featuring prime movers in the resurrection of a proud franchise.

Chairman Rocky Wirtz, Chief Executive Officer John McDonough, Executive Vice President Jay Blunk and Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman will discuss not only how they fast-forwarded the Blackhawks back into National Hockey League prominence with the 2010 Stanley Cup, but how they plan to keep this much-heralded revival on track to produce a competitive team year after year.


Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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Nobody enjoyed the championship run more than McDonough, who took over as president in November 2007, then rebuilt the organization’s infrastructure from top to bottom and sideways. The turnaround was quick and dramatic — the best ever in sports, according to Forbes Magazine — yet it was McDonough who intoned shortly after the parade two Junes ago that “the party’s over…back to work.”

Oh, there is a time and a place for diversions. Friday evening, after the opening ceremonies, current players will partake in a comedy skit with Second City, also a world-famous group. Yet, even that off-ice endeavor speaks to one of the mantras of the new Blackhawks. Winning games is paramount, but connecting with the community is vital too. McDonough stresses a fan-friendly motif, and this weekend’s gathering will be no different than previous conventions.

Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford, Marian Hossa, Bryan Bickell, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Dave Bolland, Nick Leddy, Ben Smith, Marcus Kruger, Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik and John Scott will be in the building, as will newcomer Steve Montador, along with coach Joel Quenneville and his staff.

The Blackhawks’ four ambassadors — Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito and Denis Savard — will be on hand, as will fellow Hall of Famers Pierre Pilote and Glenn Hall, plus Ab McDonald, who scored the big goal in the 1961 Stanley Cup clincher. A number of future Blackhawks will participate, as will the team’s popular TV and radio broadcasters, along with several guest moderators. For added wit and wisdom: Eric Nesterenko, Dennis Hull and Doug Jarrett.

For attendees who were around 20 seasons ago, Sunday morning’s “Welcome Back” event will tap into the 1990-91 Blackhawks who amassed 106 points and captured the Presidents’ Trophy for achieving the league’s best record. Michel Goulet, on his way to the Hall of Fame, scored 27 goals for that squad. He’ll be on the panel, as will Greg Gilbert, an excellent two-way forward; Adam Creighton, who was a multiple threat; and Dave Manson, a former No. 1 draft choice who inspired fear among opponents. Goulet, Gilbert and Creighton will be making their first convention appearances, as will Tom Lysiak and John Marks.

That 1990-91 team was airtight, yielding a league-low 211 goals with Ed Belfour in the nets and a defense that included not only Manson, but Steve Konroyd, a current team broadcaster. Troy Murray, WGN radio analyst, was an outstanding forward on the roster. Those Blackhawks were pushed, however, because the St. Louis Blues finished right behind them in the Norris Division with 105 points. The Los Angeles Kings, who captured the Smythe Division, collected 102.

In 1991, with the Blackhawks riding high, the annual NHL All-Star Game was scheduled for Chicago Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. Only a few days earlier, however, the Persian Gulf War began as President George H.W. Bush deployed troops in an effort to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The world suddenly was tense, and Wayne Gretzky, who had moved from the Edmonton Oilers to the Kings, did not stand alone when he opined that the All-Star Game should not be played out of respect for the men and women in the armed services, from the United States and Canada.

Other sports leagues, including the NCAA, wrestled with the matter, and for the most part, the games continued. In Chicago, NHL President John Ziegler said, “The United States government has had a policy going back to World War II that our citizens should carry on, that professional sports should carry on, entertainment should carry on and business should carry on.”

The All-Star Game turned out to be a patriotic rally on national TV with flags and sparklers throughout the Stadium. Gretzky later said he had never heard that building, where he made his NHL debut, so loud. The Stadium shook for another reason that day. Denis Savard, having been traded to the Montreal Canadiens, returned to Chicago as a member of the Wales Conference All-Stars.

Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, their trip through the playoffs was short and disappointing. The Minnesota North Stars, annually an angry rival, pulled an upset in six games, winning the last three straight, despite being seeded No. 8. The North Stars were not done, however. They surged all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, eventually losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A year later, the Blackhawks advanced to the Finals, but were defeated by the Penguins, who claimed their second consecutive title. It took a while for the Blackhawks to get there again, which is why last July’s convention was such a joyous occasion. The Stanley Cup was a most welcome guest in the Hilton, posing and being admired without ever having to say a word, fan-friendly in a special way. If only the Stanley Cup could talk about its summer of 2010.

The great silver jug will not be in town this weekend, but fans know now that the new Blackhawks have a plan, the people who can implement it and the mission to compete for hockey’s ultimate prize all the time, not just some of the time. The team’s roster has undergone alterations again, because that is the way of the NHL, but the organization is hooked. One Goal was achieved. However, one parade was not enough.   

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